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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What You Can Do

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On Nov. 3, 2010, after the votes had been counted and the dust had settled from the previous day's election, it was clear that conservative Republicans had made a clean sweep while many Democrats "forgot to vote."

Wisconsin Democrats lost everything. The governor's office, both houses of the Legislature, the attorney general's office and, despite the fact that the judiciary is theoretically nonpartisan, the Supreme Court were all in the hands of the right wing of the Republican Party. And this result occurred in a state that historically has been more blue than red. There was absolutely no check on the power of these right-wing Republicans. And these are not Republicans in the mold of the late Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, or even Gov. Tommy Thompson—these are "Tea Party" Republicans. Unlike in the U.S. Senate, where the minority can have a major influence because of the filibuster rule, Wisconsin Republicans were unchecked. But then they overplayed their hand.

A governor who won in a national wave election with just 52% of the vote decided to gut the progressive traditions and social contract that had made Wisconsin a very desirable place to live, work and start a business over the past several decades. We had good schools where teachers were respected, and a great university and technical college system that was accessible and affordable to everyone in Wisconsin who studied hard and played by the rules. We had clean, honest government and public employees who were capable, competent and fairly paid. Any business owner who has tried to work in an environment where government officials were "on the take" understands and appreciates the value of competent, honest government.

After the Tea Party Republican takeover of states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, the national right-wing ideologues supplied governors like Walker, Ohio's John Kasich and Florida's Rick Scott with their playbook that clearly declares class warfare against the middle class. The fact that the richest 400 people in our country, including the likes of the Koch brothers, have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the entire country—some 150 million people—is not good enough for them. They want more. And Govs. Walker, Kasich and Scott can't jump quickly enough to satisfy the demands of their rich contributors.

Now that Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers, who control both chambers of the state Legislature, are implementing the game plan put together by right-wing groups like Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council, middle-class Wisconsinites are seeing their lives and their futures turned upside-down. In a few short months, Gov. Walker and company have made it more difficult for injured parties to get justice in the courtroom, have cut deals to allow ravenous corporations to destroy Wisconsin's wetlands, and have seriously damaged the social contract between Wisconsin's teachers and other public employees and their governmental employers—at the same time that they have given huge tax breaks to corporations in the name of "job creation."

The good thing that has happened is that Walker and his corporate advisers, who thought that the average Wisconsin resident wouldn't really understand what was happening, learned that Wisconsinites are neither dumb nor docile. Those good Wisconsin schools have done a pretty good job of educating the Wisconsin people, so when Walker and company overplayed their hand and exposed their real agenda, Wisconsinites quickly understood what had happened and exercised their constitutional rights to assemble and to petition their government. They understood that this is not just an attack on public employees and their unions, but the first step in an effort to slap down the entire middle class.

Wisconsinites have decided to fight back against this blatant class warfare. Here are some of the actions that people are advocating for and choosing to take:



A Vote for Prosser Is a Vote for Walker

First of all, we need a Supreme Court that will be fair and honest. There will be an election for a Supreme Court justice in less than three weeks—April 5—and this election really matters. The seven-person state Supreme Court, which is supposed to be nonpartisan and unbiased, is currently in the hands of four conservative Republicans. One of the four Republicans, David Prosser, who personally is a very nice fellow, is up for re-election against a very capable opponent, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg (for interviews with these two candidates, see page 10).

The reason this election is so important is that many of the items that Walker proposed and the Legislature forced through—using a dubious "emergency procedure" that, among other things, severely limited public input—are probably unconstitutional since they violate such things as the separation of powers enshrined in our state Constitution. This questionable legislation will likely end up in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and recent history has shown that the current four Republican justices will vote in lock step to support the Republicans.

In the re-election effort for the Republican Prosser, his campaign material has made it very clear that he will support the Republican governor and the Republican Legislature. Prosser is now trying to claim that he was not aware of what was in his campaign material. It is hard to believe that claim, considering that Prosser has been a speaker at Tea Party rallies. Yes, a supposedly unbiased state Supreme Court justice actually has been a speaker at Tea Party rallies. So much for an honest chance in court, since Prosser himself has essentially made it clear that "A Vote for Prosser Is a Vote for Walker." An honest Supreme Court can curb the abuses of the Walker administration. Beware, though: This campaign will get very nasty, with out-of-state money running negative ads that attack challenger Kloppenburg.



Join the Recall Movement


Second, there are recall movements against all 16 of the senators who have been in office for more than a year. Victories in some of these recall elections could result in the ability to block the abuses of the Walker administration and force some bipartisan cooperation. There are three sitting Republican senators that are vulnerable in a recall election. One of these three is Sen. Alberta Darling, who represents the North Shore of Milwaukee County and parts of Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties. Sen. Darling, originally elected as a moderate Republican in a special election in 1990, has moved sharply to the right over the past 20 years in return for good legislative appointments. She is currently the co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee (JFC). As committee co-chair, along with co-chair Rep. Robin Vos, she was responsible for pushing the current Walker legislation through the legislative committee. Darling, as co-chair of the JFC, could have altered Walker's extreme legislation. Instead, she strongly endorsed it. She won her last election with just 51% of the vote and is totally vulnerable to a recall election, despite the fact that her senate district leans slightly Republican. For those who want to stay informed on the status of Darling's recall election and other competitive recall elections around the state, you can receive e-mail updates by signing up at recallupdate@shepex.com.



Keep the Pressure On: Continue to Exercise Your Constitutional Rights

As citizens of Wisconsin and the United States, people have a constitutional right to make themselves heard to their elected officials in a peaceful, nonviolent manner. Elected officials hear from all sides—with each side firmly believing they are right—and then have to make decisions, which are bound to offend one side or the other. That's politics in a democracy. However, when elected officials refuse to hear the views of the governed—by using, for example, "emergency procedures" in the Legislature when there is no "emergency," simply to avoid having to go through the normal committee procedures that allow for adequate public input—then the governed must raise their voices.

There is a constitutional right to assemble, and demonstrations do make a difference. Contrary to what Gov. Walker and company may say, when Walker looks out the window and sees 70,000 people peacefully marching around the Capitol carrying signs and denouncing his policies—to the point that he wants to be escorted through a series of tunnels under the Capitol to get to his car—he is clearly hearing the message.

Former President Richard Nixon, who would argue that the demonstrators who dogged him until he was forced from office were just a vocal minority, admitted years later that it did keep him up at night. And seeing as the demonstrators' views have become the majority position in public opinion polls, it does affect the governor.

When Walker's fellow right-wing governors, like Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey, see the demonstrations around the Wisconsin Capitol and begin to distance themselves from Walker by saying that they are not trying to do what he's doing in Wisconsin, it does affect Gov. Walker. It is hard to be considered an up-and-coming Republican vice presidential hopeful when your constituents are hounding you wherever you go.

Peaceful and persistent demonstrations do have an impact, and they are constitutionally protected—assuming we have unbiased Supreme Court justices to interpret the Constitution. Finally, it is not "getting personal" when you demonstrate in front of your elected officials' home or office, or wherever they may be, since these elected officials have chosen to put themselves in the public arena to make decisions that seriously affect your life. We do live in the world's greatest democracy, and we have some basic rights.

Louis Fortis is a former Wisconsin state legislator.